While the nation's struggling big media honchos bemoan the end of print, an obscure newspaper in the coalfields of southwestern Virginia turned off the endless white noise and captured a Pulitzer Prize. Let's look at the small picture.
Instead of complaining about how American newspapers have lost 43 percent of their ad revenue in three years, the Bristol Herald Courier believed in the impossible. They dug for news, while others kept groaning about cutbacks.
A few days before landing a Pulitzer, 28-year-old reporter Daniel Gilbert was interviewing the Easter bunny because he had weekend duty at the Herald Courier. That's how it works in a hands-on newsroom overseen by a Lou Grant-style editor, J. Todd Foster, who unleashes all his reporters to do investigative work but demands daily reporting on hyperlocal stories.
Can you possibly imagine New York Times or Washington Post's elite investigative reporters tripping off to interview the Easter bunny, after pounding government officials? Impossible, but hungry young reporters with the drive are out there uncovering corruption in the face of industry-wide cutbacks.
Some 16,000 newspaper staffers have lost their jobs in the past year, leaving many in the nation's newsrooms feeling defeated. Thirteen newspapers are facing bankruptcy, and creditors are threatening to take over as debts mount. But there are lessons to be learned at the Bristol Herald Courier.
"It's time to stop crying in our beer and realize no matter how big a newspaper, if it has a commitment it can do investigative reporting," said Foster, a burly investigative reporter-turned editor. "If we can no longer cover every school board and city council meeting, we can still do investigative reporting without worrying about spending the money or risking being sued. The investigative reporting niche will save newspapers."
It was Gilbert's good fortune to land at Foster's newspaper three years ago, after working at the Potomac News in northern Virginia. Thirteen months ago he got an e-mail message from a reader complaining about how $24 million was sitting in natural gas escrow accounts that landowners can't collect.
Six months later Gilbert was waist-high in the weeds, wondering whether he would ever understand the natural gas industry. He begged Foster to pay for him to go to a six-day Investigative Reporters and Editors boot camp.
"Daniel said, 'Remember how you promised me I could go to a week-long boot camp for computer assisted reporting?' And I said, 'What the hell? Oh, my gosh, I did. But we don't have any money. Give me 24 hours--I've got to talk to the publisher.' I called the publisher (Carl Esposito) and say how about I come over to your condo? He's a great guy. I bought Red Bull and he supplied the vodka, and we drank a few. Finally about 1:30 a.m. I got to the final agenda. Told him I had promised to send this young reporter to the University of Missouri for a week and cover the expenses. He goes, 'Oh, Todd, please tell me it's going to be worth it. Yes.'
Tri-lingual Gilbert headed off to the IRE boot camp, and came back understanding another language - numbers. Seven months later he had compiled two spreadsheets of numbers showing how the natural gas companies were bilking poor landowners.
Foster, who plays coach and quarterback, cheered him on and oversaw his work. I wasn't surprised when the Pulitzer landed at their door, knowing Foster, who is one of the best reporters I've ever had the pleasure to work with during my Time Inc. days. We'd pick up the phone and call him day or night about a breaking story, and Todd would be out the front door a half hour later - not returning for days without a complaint.
When Foster signed on as editor of the struggling Bristol, Va., newspaper, he told the publisher Carl Esposito, "I am like a rollercoaster. The ride is going to be thrilling and you will vomit occasionally. I'm not a corporate guy." Three years later, Foster confesses, "I've learned management skills. I've learned to be the editor I never had."
You've got to love this guy - he's straight out of "The Front Page." Literally larger than life.
Foster wasn't tuning on the bad news reports lately by Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, which estimated that the newspaper industry has lost $1.6 billion in annual reporting and editing capacity in the past l0 years - roughly 30 percent. The Bristol Herald Courier (circulation 33,000 on Sundays, 29,000 weekdays) lost 3,000 subscribers when it pulled out of two southwest Virginia counties because it was too expensive to deliver the paper. But Foster refused to cut back on investigative journalism.
Let's hope famed editor Gene Roberts, once the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer in the days when it landed 17 Pulitzers, meets up one day soon with Foster and his crew. Roberts lately has been bemoaning how the American media is missing the biggest business story of its day - the demise of newspapers.
"It is past time for America to become alarmed about its shrinking news coverage, but it is showing few signs of concern," he said. "In an era in which layoffs have become commonplace, newsroom cutbacks are taken as just one more twist in a bad economic downturn."
Don't tell that to the Bristol newsroom, which was celebrating the Pulitzer win last week. They shot for the gold, after suffering a business side setback.
Last Monday afternoon, while waiting for the Pulitzer winners to be posted on the Web, Foster imagined the impossible:
I suddenly had this bizarre feeling that we might win this thing. I ran to the store and bought two $4.99 bottles of champagne and threw them in the trunk. I thought if we don't win, I'll take them home. If we do win I'll look clairvoyant. The Pulitzer site kept crashing from 2:55 p.m. on. Then at 3:05 Daniel walks in my office and his jaw just dropped. We won! This is the quietest most soft-spoken guy, the best 28-year-old reporter around. I went out and got the champagne and the publisher came in... It's great.
As for Gilbert, the Pulitzer gold isn't going to his head: "My feet are firmly on the ground. There are still millions in escrow accounts and that's a problem. I'm staying on this story."